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Thursday, October 4, 2012

“Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T.E. Lawrence”, by Jeremy Wilson

1188 pages, Athenaeum, ISBN-13: 978-0689119347

The hero of David Lean's cinematic masterpiece of 1962 is unforgettable to anyone who has seen this marvelous movie, and in this volume Jeremy Wilson attempts a meticulous, factual biography of T. E. Lawrence. His book provides a less romantic portrayal of Lawrence, who however remains a towering and distinctive personality, but emerges more as a tragic hero than the movie character. Wilson shows Lawrence's compromises with the diplomatic maneuverings of Britain and France come to the fore in this book. Another interesting chapter of Lawrence's life (not shown in the movie) is his own writings. This book explains the context in which Lawrence's own work Seven Pillars of Wisdom came into being (a book Lawrence himself did not like after he learned that good writing is clear writing). I wouldn't have – and a lot of you reading this review, either – wouldn't have come to this book without the movie, so I would like to mention some things that the movie was wrong about, according to this book. 1) T. E. Lawrence did have to execute an Arab with his pistol, but he DID feel remorse about it and did NOT experience a perverse pleasure at it. 2) He was not homosexual; in fact, he asked a girl to marry him, who turned him down (it wasn’t unusual in that era that an educated Englishman still be a virgin in his mid-20’s, and the only reason he stayed a virgin until his death in his 40’s was that he was raped by those Turks, as is obliquely referred to in the movie, and as a consequence was tragically repulsed by physical human contact thereafter. So he became, as he himself described it, “a lay monk”). While there have been several other books on Lawrence, this one is easily one that serves as the basic reference, and which looks at other biographies, some of which questions Lawrence's own accounts of his life. In one of two appendices, for example, Wilson takes up a controversy surrounding the veracity of Lawrence's claim and torture at Deraa (which is strongly hinted in the scene in the movie where Lawrence is tortured by his Turkish captors). A first-rate book for anyone interested in the heroic Laurence, which I say heroic because after taking Aquaba, he was up for a Victoria's Cross, England's highest military honor, but as he needed an English witness to the event, when only Arabs witnessed it, he didn’t receive such a prestigious decoration – and Lawrence didn’t care. He perhaps, then, wasn't as vain as the movie portrayed him to be, either.

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